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Wine Pairings for Upland Birds and Small Game

Whether grilled, fried or baked, pair your next small game recipe with the perfect glass of wine.

Wine Pairings for Upland Birds and Small Game
Wine Pairings for Upland Birds and Small Game (Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley photo)
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Upland birds and small game include both light and dark meats. Species such as pheasant, quail and wild turkey are on the lighter side of the spectrum while dove and grouse have redder meat. While many of us are used to frying or grilling these birds and downing them with beer, all these meats can be paired with wine, too. Here's my take on it.

Pheasant, Quail & Wild Turkey

Pheasant, quail and turkey are considered light meat. If you do any gun dog training or enjoy hunting in controlled shooting areas, partridge (chukar) will fall in this category as well.

These birds are mild and lean. And much like chicken, they will easily take up whatever spices and flavors you apply to them. So when choosing a wine, I suggest that you pay more attention to how you cooked the bird rather than the bird itself. Depending on what other ingredients you use in your dish, your wine will need to stand up to those flavors as well.

A sweeter wine is generally recommended for heavily spiced Asian dishes, such as spicy Indian curries, Chinese stir-fry or acidic Thai food. Some of my favorite dishes include pheasant pad Thai, turkey pot stickers, pheasant butter chicken, and fried quail with sweet and sour sauce. The sweetness and fruity flavors in German Riesling or Gewürztraminer or a fruity rosé are ideal choices as they are able to offset the salty, spicy and sour flavors prevalent in Asian cuisine. If you fancy some bubbly, the touch of sweetness in Italian Prosecco is also an excellent choice.

But there will be times when you don't want to go too sweet. Some of the dishes I've made with these birds have been on the creamier, richer side. Who hasn't had pheasant in tarragon cream sauce? Or pheasant in mushroom cream sauce? These are classic recipes, and you will need a wine that is zestier, slightly drier and crisp to complement the fattiness of these types of dishes. Choose chardonnay, pinot gris/pinot grigio, chenin blanc, viognier or sauvignon blanc.

I generally stick with white wine when serving these birds, but there are some recipes that do call for more full-bodied reds. If you choose to marinade or baste your meat with a dark, heavier sauce – such as BBQ sauce, char siu, chipotle, tandoori spices – you may want a more robust wine than white. Then when you grill or roast meat, you add the element of fire, which slightly chars the meat or if not, it at least adds a smoky layer of flavor. For smoked, grilled and/or marinated birds, try pinot noir, granache/granacha blends, malbec, shiraz or zinfandel.

For heavier dishes that are tomato- or wine-based and have some acidity, such as wild turkey meatballs with red sauce or stew-like pheasant coq au vin, choose a soft red such as merlot, sangiovese (Chianti) or if you have the money, Burgundy.

Dove & Grouse

Birds such as dove and grouse, on the other hand, have darker meat. I generally don't like to overcomplicate these meats by adding too many flavors to them. They are already flavorful – a bit gamy, and I prefer to let them stand on their own.

Like a good steak, a simple sprinkling of salt and pepper is all these birds need – the doves plucked whole and grouse breasted out; save grouse legs for later to braise, make soup or broth. Sometimes I add a bit of herbes de Provence and Hungarian paprika. Finally, I sear them on the grill or in a pan with a bit of oil to medium rare.

Keep in mind that some grouse species have darker, more gamy meat than others, so choose the wine that best fits your palate. I think darker, full-bodied wines that exhibit black fruit flavors are good foils for these darker birds: merlot (lighter), zinfandel, malbec, syrah, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon or petite sirah (bolder) are good choices.

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